HK national security law casts shadow on museum's opening

Official says freedom of expression not above the law, which art exhibits must comply with

HONG KONG • A senior Hong Kong cultural official said yesterday that freedom of expression is not above a China-imposed national security law, on the eve of the opening of a contemporary art museum intended to put the city on the global cultural map.

The multibillion-dollar M+, featuring contemporary artwork from leading Chinese, Asian and Western artists, is Hong Kong's bid to match museums like the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

But the imposition of a sweeping national security law by China last year on its once-freest city is casting a pall over the opening, as curators and artists struggle to find a balance between artistic expression and political censorship.

Earlier this year, pro-Beijing politicians and media outlets criticised certain works in the M+ for breaching the national security law and inciting "hatred" against China, including a photograph by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei showing him giving the middle finger in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

"The opening of M+ does not mean that artistic expression is above the law. It is not," Mr Henry Tang, the head of the West Kowloon Cultural District, a new cultural hub that includes the M+, told reporters.

Mr Tang stressed that all exhibits must "comply" with the national security law and that certain works in the museum's collection, including Ai's contested photograph, would not be displayed.

"I have no doubt that MoMA New York probably has artworks in its archives that would not be displayed today because it would not be politically acceptable in today's environment," Mr Tang said.

The M+ museum's collection includes paintings, ceramics, videos and installations from artists such as China's Zhang Xiaogang and Britain's Antony Gormley.

A piece by artist Wang Xingwei of a man in Beijing pedalling a bicycle cart bearing two dead penguins has echoes of the Tiananmen killings in 1989.

One of Ai's installations, Whitewash, is also on display, featuring ancient Chinese earthenware jars.

Despite this, Ai remained critical. "The museum is clearly under censorship," he told Reuters by telephone from Cambridge, Britain, where he is now based.

"When you have a museum which cannot or is incapable of defending its own integrity about freedom of speech, then that raises a question. And certainly the museum cannot perform well in terms of contemporary culture," he said.

Mr Kacey Wong, a Hong Kong artist who moved to Taiwan to escape an intense political crackdown that has seen democracy campaigners jailed and civil society crushed, says he was forced to leave to keep his artistic "critical blade sharp".

Two of his works are displayed in the M+, including Paddling Home, an art installation of a boat with a "micro home" built into it.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2021, with the headline HK national security law casts shadow on museum's opening. Subscribe